How to handle your students’ questions like a boss!
Do your students pester you with questions?
Do you you wish they would ask more questions?
Do you wish you could always find the right answer to give them?
Do they distract each other and then ask about something you just said?
How a teacher handles students’ questions proves their credibility, their maturity, their empathy, and their trustworthiness. All of these factors earn the respect of the students. Students who respect you are more likely to:
- pay attention in class
- heed your advice
- ask more questions
- take more classes
- recommend you to friends.
In other words, how you handle questions earns you respect, which elevates you in the students’ minds.
I’m going to outline:
- 8 different types of questions, the hidden meaning behind them, and exactly how you should respond to them if you want to earn respect from your students.
- The 2 main things that students’ questions tell you about your teaching, and all the gory details about how to make adjustments
- 4 ways to create a question-friendly learning environment
- The one-word change that will wake up your shy, silent class
By the end, you should have a much better understanding of why these questions come up and be able to handle any question your student can throw at you!
Prepare your mindset
Students only ask questions when they feel safe, so if they are asking questions, good! You want to encourage this behaviour.
BUT, there are so many types of questions, how do you know how you should respond?
I know you’ve heard some teacher say this at some point to encourage you: “There are no dumb questions”.
I know you’re thinking, “of course there are!” We have all experienced a dumb question - it seems completely off topic, or maybe was something the teacher literally just said. When we classify a question as “dumb”, we are making the assumption that the student “should know the answer already” or “should have known better than to ask”.
But this is unfair because the student might legitimately have never been exposed to the answer, or might have no idea of the cultural expectations or implications of asking that kind of question. You can’t blame someone naive for trying to get informed.
My personal mindset about dumb questions changed when I did my teaching practicum in a Kindergarten classroom. They are so full of questions! It became really obvious to me that I can’t expect a 5-year old to “know the answer already” or to “know better than to ask”. My job was literally to help them learn how to manage their questions.
It's also important to consider the culture around questions in different countries.. In some cultures, the people are just more shy, or students grow up with the understanding that if you ask questions, it shows weakness or disrespect. Speaking up in class is considered to be selfish or conceited, and it is more valued to stay humble and not stand out. Since questions are an essential part of the learning process, students need to be trained how to redesign their culture of questions in your class.
When we first introduced West Coast Swing in Finland in 2008, the community was very small, the majority of the dancers did not travel and had weak English skills. We were surprised that every time we asked, "Does anyone have any questions?", the students simultaneously dropped their heads and avoided eye contact. It would have been easy to interpret this as rude or disinterested, but it was explained to us that this behaviour comes from shyness and fear of being singled out. With this new understanding, we changed our approach and helped the students get their questions answered privately.
When you put yourself in the position of the student and imagine what it’s like to not know how things work, or to be too shy to ask for help, you can gain a sense of empathy that will guide your response.
Consider that there is more going on in the student’s brain than they are able to express. Each type of question has a deeper meaning that you as a teacher need to be able to interpret.
What questions tell you about students’ needs
What are students really trying to tell you when they ask those questions? Questions can reveal a lot about what’s going on in their heads, and if you listen, you can hear what they need from you.
Here are 8 questions types. The first 5 are about learning, and the last 3 are not.
what it says about the student
how to respond
they are trying to interpret what you said, but they need you to clarify, define, or distinguish something.
Don’t just repeat what you said. Restate it in a different way, explain it or define tricky parts, give a negative example.
they are worried about something and need your help to feel better about it.
Never blow them off. Make them feel safe by acknowledging their fear/concern then explain how to ease their concern. Help them understand what they should/should not be concerned about.
they are wondering how the new information builds on their existing information and need your guidance.
Don’t see this as confrontational. Help them “anchor” your new information to something they already know, and explain how it relates.
they are experiencing cognitive dissonance and need help organizing what you told them in their heads.
Don’t force them to choose. Openly acknowledge that there might be some conflict between bits of advice, and help them learn how to analyze and think it through.
they are extrapolating - taking what you said and personalizing it, and seeking your approval
Don’t discourage this. Appreciate their success in understanding the new content, validate their idea, then direct them how to either apply it, reserve it, or ask you later about it.
The last 3 question types will be discussed later...
A powerful way to handle these questions and earn respect is to immediately thank the student for asking, then turn to the class and ask people to raise their hand if they were wondering the same thing. This way, the question-asker becomes the hero, and more students will be encouraged to speak up with their questions.
Want to know exactly what to say and how to help students through their confusion? We detail all the technical details about all the fundamental WCS skills and how to break them down and teach them progressively in the Swing Literacy Teacher Development Program.
Questions that students will ask:
When explaining pitch:
"But I feel like my butt is sticking out!"
How to respond:
"Good! It might feel weird, but that's only because you are standing still. Don't worry it looks normal, the same way you look when you walk up stairs. As soon as you start moving, it will not feel weird. I'll let you know if you go too far."
This is an excerpt from Unit 3 of the Theory Module inside the Teacher Development Program. At the end of each chapter, we address common student questions and how to respond.
What questions tell you about your teaching
Questions serve as great in-the-moment feedback for teachers. Every question I hear from a student, I am immediately assessing WHY it’s coming up, because that will determine how I respond and adjust my teaching in the next moment.
Whenever you get the 5 questions about learning listed above, it means one of two things:
- The intended info wasn't received
- Needed information wasn't delivered
Let's look at each scenario in depth:
1. The student asked a question because
the intended info wasn't received
How to prevent
how to respond
They couldn’t hear/see you the first time
They were distracted
Use the proximity effect: stand close to them while delivering group instructions. Set expectations, make sure you give attention cues before speaking
Ignore the reason and simply repeat yourself. Ask other students to repeat the instructions as they heard it.
You didn’t communicate clearly - mumbling, wrong angle, etc
Take care to demo on multiple angles, direct the students to “down in front”, enunciate, project.
Apologize, repeat yourself with better view/voice, and ask the student “is that better?”.
They were still processing the last thing you said
They needed more time or repetition
Repeat poignant phrases, vary the pace and volume of your words
Back up, repeat advice slower
Always start with skill progressions, demo with visuals, tell them what to feel for, and cue them through the movement
Don’t move forward. don’t just repeat your words. Repeat instructions with visuals and give them drills that isolate the skill before moving forward.
In some cases, you might need to probe the student a little to determine which of the reasons led to the problem so you can decide how to respond.
2. The student asked a question because
needed information wasn't delivered
How to prevent
how to respond
There are skills they needed first before learning this topic
They needed an introduction first to get context
For every new advice, start with explaining context and “why” so they can orient themselves to your location
Take responsibility and tell the class that you owed them an introduction first.
They missed the previous class
Have a “missed class policy”, review it briefly before jumping in
Acknowledge that it was covered in the class they missed. Ask another student to try explaining it for the group.
You skipped an important step (*see below)
Learn & plan exactly the skill progression needed for every fundamental skill in the SLDM.
Take responsibility and tell the students that you are going to back up a bit and explain a missing piece they will need before moving on.
They are experiencing cognitive dissonance
Your advice doesn’t seem to align with what they already know
Provide context and address the potential conflict up front so students aren’t disturbed by it. Always explain the "why" behind every method.
Choice #1: Show them how it actually does align and isn't actually conflicting. #2: Encourage them to use the method that feel right for them. #3: Explain that today we are focusing on another method.
They need help resolving the conflict between differing advice
Educate yourself on the most effective, pedagogically and scientifically sound methods for teaching WCS so you can make informed choices.
If there’s time, analyze the method as a group. If not, explain that you have been investigating various methods and you want them to help you experiment to find the best on for them.
They haven’t been convinced yet to use your advice, or it's not working.
Explain more than you think you need to about the “why” and the “how”. Students need way more than just Tactics and blind instructions. Encourage students to take responsibility for learning to adapt to any partner using multiple tools.
Clarify your expectations to them so they can be sure they are understanding your advice accurately. Have them try “it” with a partner so they can get the partner’s feedback to prove it works. Remind them to focus on their own efforts, not complain if their partner isn't doing it right.
*You skipped an important step
This is a common one!!!! This happens to 95% of teachers! And it’s sneaky too - you won’t even realize you are missing steps until the students ask you something that alludes to them.
We used to experience this more often, but we have invested years refining our progressions: experimenting, vetting, and confirming exactly the order students need to learn skills in, so now we find that we have all but eliminated questions like this. Now we train teachers how to do the same.
If it feels like you can't give your students an answer that actually solves the problem, this indicates that you are missing teaching tools. Time to upgrade with Swing Literacy!
The last 3 question types (that are not about learning)
Type of student question
what it says about the student
how to respond
they are looking to satisfy an egoic need and they need your attention or affirmation.
Don’t take this personally. This is usually about them, not you. Direct them to ask their questions only during certain times. Only answer their questions while the class is practicing. While circulating, pay personal attention to them so they get their needs filled quietly.
they are questioning you - your methods, your credibility
While this can be off-putting, it is a trap. The student is trying to measure you against other teachers they have taken from, so they can figure out who to listen to, who to believe. You need to prepare how to respond to this so you don’t lose your cool in the moment.
Either they have ulterior motives or the student is just ignorantly awkward and doesn’t realize that their question could make someone feel uncomfortable. Usually asked outside of class time.
These are questions that make you uncomfortable - they’re a little too personal, they involve a proposition, or they feel threatening. In either case, be polite, but set your boundaries. You could deflect them with a vague answer and continue the conversation as usual.
Student: “Do you have a boyfriend?”
Teacher: “Oh, it’s complicated.” or “Oh, I’m way too busy for that”, then change the subject or “Let’s get back to talking about your dance” or “I prefer to keep my personal and business lives separate.”
Sometimes If they are intentionally asking invasive questions, first give them a way out - an opportunity to backpedal. Try paraphrasing for them a better way to ask their question and then answer it. If they don’t take the opportunity to rephrase, time to escalate.
Student: “Can you and I dance to a sexy song next?”
Teacher: “That seems like an unusual request. Is there something you want to work on to that type of music?”
Student: “No, I just like dancing with you”
Teacher: “I’m not comfortable doing a sexy song with you, but I’d be happy to dance the next one” or, “I don’t think a sexy song is the right one for me, but I have another song in mind.”
How to create a question-friendly learning environment
The one-word change that will wake up your silent class
If you ask, "Do you have any questions", the students are likely to stay quiet, either because they don't want to admit they do have a question, they don't want to hold up the class, or they haven't fully realized that they have a question yet.
You are likely to get more student questions if you change your wording to "What questions do you have?". This suggests to the student that they probably do have questions and prompts them to actually search their brain before responding.
Create question policies and rituals
Set up a “parking lot” area where you have a section of the wall or mirror with a dry erase marker or sticky notes and a pen. Any questions that are not pertinent to the lesson or will sidetrack from current goals can be written up on the sticky notes and “parked”, to be addressed at the end or next class. In class, you can quickly say "Park it!" and the student will know to go write it down and you can move on.
Offer question prompts
Sometimes students are trying to understand what kind of questions you are looking for - what kind of questions are ok to ask. Especially in the first few classes, offer them some question frames and give them a few moments to think. For example:
"In a moment I'm going to invite questions. Here are some questions I'm looking for: "How do I _____?", "What should I do with my ____?", "Can you please demo the _____ again?"
Showcasing preferred questions
When a student asks a question in a way that is respectful and constructive, be transparent and acknowledge them for their great question in front of the class and mention why or what you appreciated about their questions. This helps other students learn how to formulate questions so they can feel more confident and safe in asking them.
Phrases to use to create a question-safe space
- we love questions
- questions help you learn faster
- questions help us asses out own teaching
- we are not here to judge
- everyone was a beginner once
- we expect you to try your best
- we expect you to listen to the instructions
- take care of your partner as your #1 priority
- no problem, don’t worry about that yet
- ___ doesn’t matter: what you should focus on right now is ____
- remember your manners
- be a good human
- say thank you before rotating
- introduce yourself
- you have permission to be messy when learning
- no one expects you to get it the first time
- give your partner another chance
- remember your partner is trying their best
- tell your partner if it feels good
- smile when your partner gets it right
- no one here is perfect
- everyone is here to learn
- feedback is great for classes but inappropriate for social dancing
- feel free to ask if you don’t understand
- feel free to ask why you should learn it this way
If at any point while reading this article, you find yourself asking, “Ok but how?”, it’s time to check out the Teacher Development Program.
Like this article? We'd love to hear your comments or questions below! What's one thing from this article you're planning to use in your teaching this week?
This is a masterpiece, which is really helpful for teachters who are willing to teach instead of giving a class.
Love this article so much! Thanks Tessa! Great info… as usual!